Democracy & Elections Executive Branch Intelligence Surveillance & Privacy

In Defense of the Washington Post's Much Maligned Snowden Editorial

Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, September 21, 2016, 1:00 AM

To see the Snowdenistas and many media elites clutching for their smelling salts, you’d think my former colleagues at the Washington Post editorial page had stabbed Edward Snowden in the back after swearing a blood oath to protect him to Bart Gellman and the Post’s news team.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

To see the Snowdenistas and many media elites clutching for their smelling salts, you’d think my former colleagues at the Washington Post editorial page had stabbed Edward Snowden in the back after swearing a blood oath to protect him to Bart Gellman and the Post’s news team.

Betraying Snowden: There’s a Special Place in Journalism Hell for the Washington Post Editorial Board,” reads the headline in Salon. “WashPost Makes History: First Paper to Call for Prosecution of Its Own Source (After Accepting Pulitzer),” huffs Glenn Greenwald.

What’s the charge? The paper has had the temerity to oppose a pardon for the fugitive despite the Washington Post’s having published some of his material and won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

Writes Greenwald:

In the face of a growing ACLU and Amnesty-led campaign to secure a pardon for Snowden, timed to this weekend’s release of the Oliver Stone biopic “Snowden,” the Post editorial page today not only argued in opposition to a pardon, but explicitly demanded that Snowden—the paper’s own source—stand trial on espionage charges or, as a “second-best solution,” accept “a measure of criminal responsibility for his excesses and the U.S. government offers a measure of leniency.”

In doing so, the Washington Post has achieved an ignominious feat in U.S. media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source—one on whose back the paper won and eagerly accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Greenwald is not alone in his attack of the vapors. The redoubtable Jack Shafer (an early mentor and editor of mine) tweets:

And NPR’s media reporter David Folkenflik had this exchange with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep on the subject:

INSKEEP: So how does The Post justify this stance, that the guy who got them the information that they published ought to be prosecuted?

FOLKENFLIK: They acknowledged that complication. But what The Post's editorial page says is that this is a guy who broke the law. If he is truly presenting himself as a whistleblower or as somebody acting out of conscience, then he needs to face the music. And they seemingly allude in some ways to, you know, what you think of major civil rights figures and protesters, including Martin Luther King, Jr., which is to say when protesting a law that he saw as unjust, he nonetheless submitted to civil authority. You know, that letter Martin Luther King sent was sent from jail. I think The Washington Post thinks that Snowden should face civil authorities and see what consequences emerge.

Take a deep breath, guys. Let’s unpack this supposed controversy.

There is, in fact, nothing remotely wrong with what the editorial page did here. The editorial page has no institutional duty whatsoever to defend a source simply because the news side won a Pulitzer based on his criminality. The editorial and news sides involve separate editorial hierarchies: the news side reports to the executive editor (Marty Baron), while the editorial page reports to the editorial page editor (Fred Hiatt); neither Baron nor Hiatt reports to the other. The precise purpose of this structure is to allow both to make separate judgments. Hiatt’s staff is not tasked with deciding whether or not to publish Snowden documents. Marty Baron’s staff is not tasked with opining on whether Snowden should get a pardon.

What’s more, the factual premises of a lot of the current criticisms are, at a minimum, grossly overstated. As I'll explain, there is actually little new about the Post editorial page’s position in this editorial. And the editorial page did not, in fact, call for the jailing of Edward Snowden. It also did not criticize the newspaper’s news side, which is a shame really; the paper has a lot to answer for in the Snowden imbroglio.

Before getting into the weeds here, a word of disclosure: I know something about how the Washington Post editorial page does business in relation to the news side of the paper, having worked as an editorial writer there for nearly a decade. I also know a thing or two about how the editorial page considers matters, especially criminal justice and national security matters. I concede that all of this may convey some bias on my side—in favor of a group of people whom I admire a great deal professionally and intellectually and for whom I have a great deal of personal fondness. The Washington Post editorial page is the closest thing to a political affiliation I have ever had. Moreover, while the editorial page folks have not criticized the Pulitzer committee for awarding their news side colleagues the Snowden Pulitzer, I have done so rather strongly—a matter to which I will return. The reader should feel free to regard all this as suggesting that I am hopelessly biased. I prefer to think of it as being informed.

As a preliminary matter, let’s clear up a few factual points: The Post editorial page did not come out for imprisoning Snowden. Rather, it opposed pardoning him before any kind of adjudication of his guilt or innocence takes place—that is, it opposed prospectively relieving him of all consequences for his behavior without his even having to acknowledge guilt and while he is a fugitive from justice in a hostile country.

What outcome does the editorial advocate? Not jail, necessary. “Ideally, Mr. Snowden would come home and hash out all of this before a jury of his peers. That would certainly be in the best tradition of civil disobedience, whose practitioners have always been willing to go to jail for their beliefs,” the editorial reads. “The second-best solution might be a bargain in which Mr. Snowden accepts a measure of criminal responsibility for his excesses and the U.S. government offers a measure of leniency in recognition of his contributions.” In the editorial page’s ideal world, in other words, Snowden could “hash out all of this before a jury of his peers” and be acquitted. Nor does the paper’s fallback option insist on prison time as part of the deal. So it is flat wrong to say, as Shafer and others do, that the Post editorial page has argued that Snowden should go to jail.

Importantly, the Post editorial page’s position that Snowden should come home and face the music—including the possibility of prison—is not new. The editorial page took this position, in fact, long before the Pulitzer committee decided to honor the paper’s work on the Snowden documents. Back in July 2013, during the very period in which the news side of the paper was running the stories in question, the Post ran an editorial entitled “How to Keep Edward Snowden from Leaking More Secrets.” What did this editorial recommend? “The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation.”

Pause and consider the outrage directed at the Post in light of this. What Greenwald and Shafer and company are really complaining about is not that the editorial page favors accountability for Snowden. It’s that the Post did not change its editorial stance to favor the news side’s source after the paper had won a Pulitzer.

Because that wouldn’t be corrupt at all.

The critics make a great deal of the current editorial’s treatment of the 702 program. Here’s Greenwald:

Other than that initial Snowden revelation, the Post suggests, there was no public interest whatsoever in revealing any of the other programs. In fact, the editors say, real harm was done by their exposure. That includes PRISM, about which the Post says this:

The complication is that Mr. Snowden did more than that. He also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. (It was also not permanent; the law authorizing it expires next year.)

In arguing that no public interest was served by exposing PRISM, what did the Post editors forget to mention? That the newspaper that (simultaneous with The Guardian) made the choice to expose the PRISM program by spreading its operational details and top-secret manual all over its front page is called … the Washington Post. Then, once they made the choice to do so, they explicitly heralded their exposure of the PRISM program (along with other revelations) when they asked to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

If the Post editorial page editors really believe that PRISM was a totally legitimate program and no public interest was served by its exposure, shouldn’t they be attacking their own paper’s news editors for having chosen to make it public, apologizing to the public for harming their security, and agitating for a return of the Pulitzer? If the Post editorial page editors had any intellectual honesty at all, this is what they would be doing — accepting institutional responsibility for what they apparently regard as a grievous error that endangered the public — rather than pretending that it was all the doing of their source as a means of advocating for his criminal prosecution.

Yes, the editorial is restrained in its treatment of the Post’s news side. It describes a hierarchy of public interest and value with respect to the Snowden leaks, in which it acknowledges that the metadata program “was a stretch, if not an outright violation, of federal surveillance law, and posed risks to privacy” and treats its compromise as a good thing. By contrast, the 702 disclosures, the editorial says, involved a program that was “both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy.” That is an entirely defensible factual statement. Is the editorial page, if it believes it true, not supposed to say so because the paper has won a Pulitzer?

Because that wouldn’t be corrupt at all either.

The editorial can, I think, reasonably be taken to imply a very different news judgment about the value of the 702 stories and some of the other Snowden revelations than the news side made in publishing them. Gellman, the reporter on contract for the Post who wrote the stories, sent Folkenflik a statement saying, "I suppose [the editorial] sets a milestone of some kind for its passive aggressive critique of the paper's own journalism." And Greenwald seems upset that the editorial page does not actively take on the subject, considering this the height of hypocrisy. But the editorial page is perfectly within its rights to have a different view of the news merits of a story than did the news side.

And in fact, if such a disagreement is what’s behind the editorial’s few spare sentences on 702, the editorial page would be on very solid ground. Perhaps my former colleagues are being too delicate here in not spelling out the reasons a person might not take a heroic view of the Post’s role in this sorry affair. I am less so. Back when the Post won its Pulitzer, I wrote the following:

The Pulitzer Board's citation to [the Post and the Guardian] has a faintly comic air. The Post the board congratulates not merely for "its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency" but for "authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security."


The commendation to the Post ... involves an assertion of fact that is, at a minimum, highly contestable. The Post got big things wrong in the stories the board honors. It reported that NSA has access to the servers of internet companies—a fact it then changed in the story without running a correction, for example. It grossly misreported, using entirely true facts, on a compliance audit so as to present it as suggesting nearly the opposite of what it actually shows. And it frequently reported on the most routine sort of overseas intelligence collection, collection of precisely the sort the law authorizes, in breathless tones suggestive of gross impropriety. The Post's reporting has indeed been authoritative, though not because it has been good or consistently accurate; its authority has been part of the problem. Its coverage has often been the opposite of insightful. And it has in fact served to help the public misunderstand the issues on which it was intended to shed light.

Here’s the broad point: the editorial page’s job is emphatically not to advocate positions that maximally advantage the news side’s professional interests. Its job is not to protect the news side from criticism or to help its sources evade the law. The news side’s job is to report the news without reference to whom that may help. The editorial page’s job is to describe a vision of the public good with respect to a range of issues. The editorial page shouldn’t tell the news side what to write and it shouldn’t be bound by the news side’s interests in deciding what to write itself.

If you doubt the wisdom of that statement, consider a different newspaper: the Wall Street Journal. Ask yourself if you’re a liberal whether you want greater editorial-news integration between the hard-line conservatives on the Journal’s editorial page and the folks who write that paper’s news stories. If you’re a conservative, ask yourself whether you want the editorial page bound to defend and promote the news side’s work and interests, given that the news side is not staffed by conservatives. The Post editorial page is the picture of political moderation, so the value of the separation is sometimes less vivid than with Journal. But the principle, and the values behind it, are no less valid or important as applied to the Post.

In my time at the Post editorial page, there were a lot of issues in which people on the news side probably had anxieties about the positions we took on the editorial page. We supported the Iraq War, for example, fully aware that many reporters opposed it. We supported controversial Bush administration judicial nominations. And certainly, there were major stories the news side broke about which I had real anxieties; to cite only one example of relevance to this site, I was never a big fan of Dana Priest’s story about the CIA’s secret prisons program, which struck me has mostly hype relative to the actual new information it contained. But that was okay. I didn’t try to tell her what to write; she didn’t try to tell me what to think about the news she wrote. Nor did anyone on the news side tell us on the editorial page what to say about whether John Roberts or Sam Alito should be confirmed, and we didn’t feel obligated to validate with our editorials the news judgments reporters and editors made about what sort of disparaging information to report about those nominees. Different lanes. Different roles.

There’s a still deeper issue here, one that goes beyond the editorial separation between the news and commentary functions of a newspaper: The assumption that the Washington Post—whether the news or editorial staff—is obligated to advocate for the legal interests of its sources seems to me wrongheaded. The decision to receive information from a source is not an act of sacred affiliation. The decision to publish information given by a source represents a judgment that the information given is newsworthy, that publication is in the public interest. That judgment may require a promise to protect the source against exposure. But it does not represent a judgment that the provision of the material is a legal act, a good act, a moral act, or an act without terrible collateral consequences. And it certainly does not represent a judgment that the leaker warrants clemency by the President of the United States or imply an obligation to advocate that clemency.

In fact, we would live in an entirely different world journalistically if newspapers determined that the decision to publish a document conveyed approval of the act of providing it. This would be a world in which a newspaper would have to decide before publishing material stolen as part of the DNC hack whether it wished to advocate for clemency for the hackers who stole it. It simply isn’t the world in which we live in, not even for Snowden.

In other words, even if the Post editorial page were somehow obligated to go to bat for the institutional positions and views of the Post news side, it would be quite wrong to determine that either is bound to support someone’s legal case because he happens to be a source from which the Post has benefited.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

Subscribe to Lawfare